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Wednesday, 10 February 1999
Page: 2304

Mr LIEBERMAN (11:18 AM) —I am pleased to speak in support of this Workplace Relations Legislation Amendment (Youth Employment) Bill 1998 and to again commend the Minister for Employment, Workplace Relations and Small Business, Peter Reith, for his achievements with respect to workplace reform since the Howard-Fischer government was first elected in 1996.

Initiatives have been taken that were needed and well overdue in this country and they are benefiting Australians generally. This bill is part of the process of reform the government has committed to implement in this country.

The bill provides for the immediate implementation of two commitments concerning youth employment made in the coalition's workplace relations policy, More Jobs, Better Pay. It was vigorously and robustly debated— and, I might say, grossly misinterpreted and misrepresented by our political opponents. But the Australian people sorted it out very well and gave this government a mandate to continue with its reform, particularly in the workplace. The bill implements those policies put to the people of Australia and amends the objects and related provisions of the Workplace Relations Act 1996 to include specific reference to the protection of the competitive position of young people in the labour market and the promotion of youth employment and the reduction of youth unemployment. The bill also permanently exempts junior rates of pay from existing provisions intended to eliminate age discrimination in awards and agreements.

I was interested to hear the contribution from the member for Chisholm and the story of the young and very successful ANZ Bank employee. She is progressing very well, obviously, with the bank recognising her talents and skill. The point I would like to make is that the provision of junior rates of pay in legislation provides the benchmark for the minimum. There is no law, as I think is implied or perhaps misunderstood by the member for Chisholm, that says employers and employees cannot make additional arrangements on top of the minimum in cases where they believe there is merit and joint and mutual benefit will be derived. That is actually what appears to have happened with the young lady at the ANZ Bank. We certainly wish her well in her career—undoubtedly she is climbing the ladder.

Once again there is this misunderstanding—or is it misrepresentation?—on the part of the opposition about the government's policies. We are prescribing the minimum parameters, but in doing so we are actually reflecting what the community, industry, employees, employers and advisers are saying to us in Australia and overseas and that is that the provision of junior wage rates in an economy like ours will protect the jobs of more than 300,000 young people in this nation.

If you listen carefully to the attack on an almost class war basis from the opposition, what they are saying is that this actually discriminates against young people and is unfair. So they are distancing themselves from the vast weight of evidence that has been provided to say that, if you do away with the junior wage rate provisions, which is what the Labor Party are arguing for, and you obstruct this legislation, you actually are putting at risk and in jeopardy the jobs of at least 300,000 young people in this country. We are very worried about the youth unemployment situation, as we all must be in this country, and about the consequences of long-term youth unemployment such as suicide.

Last night, Mr Deputy Speaker, you will remember that I mentioned briefly that in my electorate, in the small town of Mount Beauty, sadly, we have had two young people commit suicide, one fairly recently. The youth suicide rates in regional Australia are amongst the highest in the world. Whilst there are complex reasons, some difficult to explain, as to why these young people are taking their lives, there is a united acceptance by everyone that part of the problem is despair due to the fact that they have lost hope, they do not believe that they have a future. That is partly due to the difficulty in gaining employment in a changing environment and a changing world and in a nation that has up to now, because of 13 years of Labor, failed to address some of the obstacles to creating investment, employment and training in this country.

Once again I ask members and those who are listening to this broadcast to look at the government's reformist policies objectively, by all means to scrutinise them very closely but to look at them as being part of a total strategy, not just in isolation, designed to look at the problems that have been holding this country back and stopping investment and the creation of new jobs and preventing young people having a go and a chance that we had in our earlier lives that they are not having so readily now. What we do should be seen in that total context. I take the opportunity once again, as I will whenever I can in speaking to people in parliament and throughout my electorate and in other places, to say that, if we miss the opportunity in 1999 to introduce comprehensive and full tax reform in this country, we will actually be striking a deadly blow against the future of our young Australians, who deserve better.

If you introduce comprehensive tax reform, it does not suit everybody; there are various vested interests and groups who would like it slightly different. Nevertheless, you cannot have it easy. You have to do it properly and you have to do it comprehensively. If you miss the chance of implementing comprehensive youth wage reform like this, tax reform, industrial reform, reform in transport and all of those things, you are actually preventing young people from gaining access to the employment that we all want them to have. That is a simple proposition. The fact is that in the real world people will not invest, people will not take risks, people will not create jobs for young people unless the environment is there for them to do that and unless there is incentive to do it through a fair, balanced, broad based tax system. The one we have—the 1930s model, the clapped-out model—is no longer relevant to this country. It must be comprehensively and urgently reformed, and it must be done before 30 June. The consequences if it is not done are quite horrendous.

This legislation is part of the mosaic of this reformist government having the courage to tackle the hard issues, going to the people in an election with a broad based consumption tax and a comprehensive tax reform package and risking all—because that is what we believe this country must do and should have done 10 years ago, if not even before that. So there is no shirking responsibility. There is plenty of acceptance on our part that some of the things we are doing are challenging some of the cosy institutional and somewhat irrelevant attitudes of the past.

I was just speaking on a radio program a little while ago from Shepparton with Tony Jerome, a wonderful community radio broadcaster and a good friend, about our implementation of programs like youth wages, Work for the Dole, Green Corps and the literacy and numeracy test for long-term young unemployed people. I was explaining—Mr Deputy Speaker, you might find your experience different from mine—that in my electorate contact in my electoral office with people face to face, by phone calls and letters and in conversations my staff have, all indicate a very solid level of community support for those courageous, reformist steps, particularly with relation to the literacy and numeracy program.

I was saying to Tony Jerome on the radio this morning that it is not a matter of punishing young people, it is not a matter of saying, `We are going to blame you because you did not attain minimal literacy and numeracy levels in your school but you dropped out of school and did not obtain even some other levels of qualification and skill.' The reality is that you need help to equip yourself as a young Australian to get employment. The fact is that you have been unemployed and you have had interviews and you did not get work, and probably a lot of that is due to the fact that you have a level that is not good enough, for your own sake, for your own character, for your own future, in literacy and numeracy. I use the example of someone saying, `There is going to be a local marathon race next month in Wodonga, Wangaratta, Benalla or Euroa. I would like to go in it but I'm not fit enough to go in it, so I'm going to do something about it. I'm actually going to go into training and I'm going to get fit. I'm going to do exercises and the like so that I can do well and not get injured by entering a physical race like that without being fit.'

People need to do something about improving their skills for their own benefit. The government is not doing this to punish anyone; it is doing it because it is sensible. It is what most people would do. If you want to meet a challenge and you are a little bit short on skills and an opportunity is there to get those skills, you go and do something about it, you take advantage of that opportunity. That is the basis of the government's literacy and numeracy policy for young unemployed people. It is not to punish them, but to say, `Listen, John or Mary, you have not been able to get up off the ground from where you have been, and it is causing enormous pain and sadness to you and your family. Why don't you do something about getting your skills up as you have not been able to reach minimum levels of literacy and numeracy?' That is the basis of it.

I bring these examples into the debate on the Workplace Relations Legislation Amendment Bill which is now before the House because they are part of the mosaic of doing things that need to be done, which also includes the government's reform with respect to freedom of association. I am not against unionism. If you want to be a member of a union, good on you; I have no worries about that at all. I have some good friends in the House who have got strong associations with the union movement.

Mr Slipper —Name them.

Mr LIEBERMAN —They include members on both sides of the House. I know that some members are former members of unions—those on our side of the House too. I remember one of my sons at 15 years of age getting a job after school as a `checkout chick' in Safeways. He was told that he had to join the union before he could start. He had no hang-ups about the union. In our house we try not to have hang-ups about people. He had no prior prejudice about them, although when I was Minister for Local Government and Planning in Melbourne he used to hear the name `Norm Gallagher' a bit, who used to put all the bans on the projects down there. But that is another story. My son was offended at not being able to start the `checkout chick' work after school because he had to join a union. I think that was a valid point.

Isn't it good that the coalition government, since its first election in its first term, introduced laws that prevent the closed shop and enshrine in law the freedom of association that all Australians should have? We are free of any shackles, free of any law that says, `Hang on, you first must join this.' In my own profession, that of a lawyer, what a great thing it is to see compulsory membership of law institutes and law societies abolished. I do not practise law any more, but I remain a member of such organisations by choice.

I was first made a barrister and solicitor in 1962—that is a fair time ago—but it was only last year that I could voluntarily decide to remain a member of the Law Institute of Victoria and the Law Society of New South Wales. Up to that time I could not practise unless I belonged to those member associations. They are reshaping and making sure their services are attractive and beneficial to members and the community. I believe their membership has gone up, believe it or not, despite the gloomy predictions that a reform of that nature—freeing people from these shackles—would have a detrimental effect. Quite the opposite has been the case. So it is with respect to the youth wage.

I have suffered the low wage too. I was waiting for an examination result before I could first sign my articles, and in my capacity as a law clerk I was being paid $8 a week. When I passed my examination, I could then sign my articles—I could not sign them until then—and my pay went down to $6 a week, because I was then an articled law clerk. That was a bit tough, I can tell you. Nevertheless, I got training which led me to be able to become qualified and to be able to practise and to do fairly well in my practice, to make a good living for myself and support my family and give my kids better opportunities than those which I had. So the system works okay.

It is not a matter of punishing a young person just out of school who has not got the training and the skills. It is a matter of giving them a connection with the employer. Most employers in Australia—900,000 of them—are in small business. That is the engine room of this country. It is dammed hard in small business—I have run a small business; I know what it is like—to take on that extra overhead, to employ someone. You have got to put in extra effort and take more risk and perhaps take larger premises and do all those sorts of things to accommodate that new employee, particularly the young one just out of school who understandably has not yet got the productive capacity to provide the return that you need, so that you can keep your bank manager happy and pay your taxes and have something left over for your kids' education and for your retirement. It is bottom line stuff.

What the Labor Party is doing is totally out of date again. I think we had better get Mark Latham to write another chapter in his book, or maybe we should get Simon Crean to write another chapter in his book, which he has to do to keep pace with the Young Turks. The Labor Party is arguing from the wrong base. If it says, `The youth wage is acceptable, but we would like to see it reviewed because it does not quite reflect the skill of the young person coming out of school', that is a valid argument. I will go along with that, because the experts can look at that.

The Labor Party is saying that someone just out of school starting their first job, who has not yet got the skills to deliver the productivity and the benefits in what they are doing, still should be paid the adult wage. That is cuckoo-land. People will say, `Sorry, I am not going to employ the young person. I will employ an adult at the higher level of wage who can provide the productive return for my risk and my effort.' That is what happens in the workplace. It is not a matter of taking advantage of young people; it is simply the real world.

This legislation is about accommodating those things but ensuring that people are not exploited either. I believe very strongly, as you have probably gathered, that our reforms in tax, industrial relations, youth wages, Work for the Dole, Green Corps, unemployment benefits, additional training, new apprenticeship opportunities, one-stop shops—all of those things put together—take us into the new millennium better equipped than we have ever been to take our place in the world and to achieve all those things we can do but, above all, to give our young Australians the best chance they can get. Our duty is to give them a better chance than we had. We had a good show from the risks taken by our parents and their parents before them. What a wonderful Australia this is, if you trace all of that. So isn't it our duty going into the next millennium to make damn sure that we do all we can not to pander to vested interests but to sweep aside the obstacles that prevent new opportunities being created for young people?